By Paul Gibbs
As the father of two small children, I’ve been rather busy this December. Hollywood is also currently busy in the rush of awards season and a somewhat smaller Christmas release slate than usual. So, my business is meeting theirs in this rundown of late December releases I saw earlier in the month. Some are in theaters, some are streaming, all are from noteworthy directors and have been in the Oscar conversation on some levels. But only some of them are actually worthy the time and effort of seeing.
Director Antoine Fuqua and star Will Smith’s suspense drama dealing with the escape from slavery and run to freedom of a historical figure is flawed but impressive. This is story of the man who became known as “Whipped Peter” after a famous photo that became a symbol of the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery. While this film is nowhere near the towering achievement that Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave was, it’s a compelling and technically skillful piece of storytelling that may be more accessible to a wide audience. Fuqua plays the film as part drama, part man on the run thriller (it feels weird to use the word “thriller” to describe a depiction of a crime against humanity, but that’s the term), and he’s helped considerably by one of Smith’s best performances (I’m not going to talk about that I’m sick if the subject.). The muted colors of Robert Richardson’s cinematography help give it the look and feel of a historiical photograph, and as usual Fuqua paces his film well and stages action with ferocious intensity. There’s been legitmate debate about how appropriate this approach to the story is, or whether it’s time to move on from these stories and focus on other aspects of Black history. I don’t have the answer to that, but I will say that at a time when many seem to want to downplay the horrors of slavery and historical racism. I see potential benefit in an engaging film from one of Hollywood’s biggest stars which shows us it was real.
Emancipation isn’t quite the great film it wants to be, but for me it’s a worthy effort.
Sadly, “worthy effort” is one of the last terms I would use to describe director Darren Aronofsky’s latest film. This chronicle (adapted from an award-winning play) of a 600 lb man trying to make amends with his estranged daugther while also attempting to eat himself to death is exploitative and degrading. From the moment I saw that Aronofsky had chosen to shoot the film in a 4:3 square aspect ratio so that Brendan Fraser in his fatsuit could fill up the entire frame, I knew we were in trouble. Fraser gives a strong performance as Charlie, a professor of English and Literature who left his wife and daughter for one of his male students, and has lapsed into self-destructive behavior after tragically losing his partner. But he’s hampered by a script full of one-note characters and heavy-handed cliches, some insultingly obvious and on the nose and obvious directing choices by Aronofsky, and the film’s offensive determination to make us find Charlie repulsive before it “redeems” him. Thankfully the film largely avoids homophobia, but its portrayal of obesity is appallingly demeaning and oversimplified. Aronofsky seems to want us to be disgusted for most of the running time so that at the end he can show us that underneath and despite it all, Charlie is a human being worth caring about. What he completely misses is that all along, on the surface, Charlie was always a human being worth caring about, and that portraying obesity as some sort of character defect or moral failure shows that some prejudices are still socially acceptable in 2022.
I sincerely hope that Brendan Fraser, an actor I’ve long enjoyed, uses the recognition and publicity of The Whale to move on to better projects, and that other cast members like Stranger Things standout Sadie Sink do the same. But this isn’t just an Oscar season disappointment for me, it’s my least favorite film of 2022.
Director Rian Johnson’s follow-up to his acclaimed hit mystery Knives Out may not be quite the breath of fresh air that one was, but it’s awfully good. Daniel Craig returns as brilliant detective Benoit Blanc, this time attending an island getaway with tech guru Edward Norton and his friends. Of course, this being a murder mystery, nefarious deeds ensue and Blanc’s expertise is needed.
There’s an element of “bigger is better” sequelitis going on here, but the film is so cleverly written and well-plotted that it’s easy to dismiss that. Craig is delightful, and again he’s surrounded by a top-notch cast of suspects. The standout is Janelle Monae, who largely steals the film in a role I won’t say much about to avoid spoilers. From the acting to the writing to directing, editing, music, etc, Johnson and his team have crafted another wildly entertaining movie that will leave most viewers thoroughly entertained and anxious for the next installment. Benoit Blanc as a franchise character works.
Director Damien Chazelle may be the most talented young director in Hollywood. He followed up his Oscar-winning La La Land triumph with First Man, which I consider to be the most underrated and unfortunately ignored film of the last five years or more. But every director stumbles: Even Steven Spielberg followed Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind with 1941. And Babylon is definitely Chazelle’s misfire, a painfully overlong and overstuffed look at Hollywood’s silent era and the transition to talkies that’s not going to replace Singing in the Rain for anyone.
Margot Robbie stars as Nellie LaRoy, an aspiring star who catches a producer’s eye at one of what felt like 200 Caligula style party set pieces. Nellie quickly sees her star rise, but this leads to increasing trouble as she becomes deeper embroiled in a world of sex, drugs, scandal, and pretty much everything but distributing illegal fireworks.
Robbie throws herself completely into the role to a degree that I couldn’t dcside whether I was seeing good acting, or just a LOT of acting. Newcomer Diego Calva impresses as her co-lead, and Brad Pitt steals most of his scenes as a veteran movie star. Chazelle is still dazzling us with his staging and camera movement, and his script makes us laugh plenty of times. But the filmmaker’s feel for storytelling seems to have deserted him here, and the film is off-puttingly frenetic and bombastic. Chazelle is trying to create the feel of fame as a drugs, and drugs as a drug, right down to eventually making us feel we need to throw up because we’ve had to much. This is a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” movie, and for me, other than a couple big shooting day set pieces, almost nothing did. I hope this is a learning experience for Chazelle rather than a Heaven’s Gate-style derailment of a celebrated but still young career.